The family of Michael J. Smith, pilot of the space shuttle Challenger, has filed a $15.1 million negligence claim against NASA and Lawrence J. Mulloy, head of the agency's solid rocket booster program.
The claim, filed on behalf of Jane J. Smith, widow of the Navy pilot, and other heirs to Smith's estate, charges that NASA officials' "negligence" caused the destruction of the Challenger on Jan. 28 in which Smith and the six other crew members died.
It was the first claim filed by any of the survivors, according to John E. O'Brien, the agency's general counsel.
O'Brien, who would not comment on the merits of the claim, said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has not decided how to respond to it. He said that under the Federal Tort Claims Act, deceased members of the military and their families are precluded from filing such claims. Smith was a Navy commander.
O'Brien also said it would take an act of Congress to pay the full claim by Jane Smith, since the act establishing NASA put a $25,000 limit on damage claims.
The claim, filed July 3, alleges that NASA officials "directed, allowed and participated in the launch of Challenger when they knew or should have known that the segments of the right-hand solid rocket booster would not properly seal and that a catastrophic accident would likely occur as a result thereof."
The charges reflect findings by the Rogers Commission, which was appointed by the president to investigate the Challenger disaster and reported its findings on June 9.
William F. Maready, the Winston-Salem, N.C., lawyer who filed the claim on behalf of Michael Smith's family, is asking $15 million in compensation for Smith's death and $100,000 for personal injury in the few seconds preceding the Challenger explosion when, the claim says, Smith "knew of his impending death."
Maready was unavailable for comment yesterday.
The claim also says that NASA officials "knew or should have known" that the cold weather at the time of the launch made it impossible or highly unlikely that the seals of the joints connecting the booster's segments would work, and that the seals were already not working properly.
NASA "disregarded and ignored" the advice of engineers who criticized the seals, it said.